To this day, and likely until his final training camp as the Cowboys quarterback, Tony Romo takes great joy in telling rookies who complain about the coaching staff that they have no idea just how easy they have it. That's because no rookie has taken more grief from any coach than what Bill Parcells gave Jason Witten in 2003.
In retrospect, call it tough love, as the first-year Dallas head coach was looking to change the culture. Parcells always figured it was easier to break and build younger players, especially rookies, than veterans. He also tended to focus on those he felt had something special.
And there was arguably no position in which Parcells took more of an interest than tight end, as he had previously coached Mark Bavaro and Ben Coates, both of whom were two-time First Team All-Pro selections. Pass-rushing outside linebackers, tight ends and special teams – Parcells considered himself an expert on each. And for those reasons, he rode Witten as hard as any player in his coaching career. He pushed him to the brink, mentally and physically, paused for a quick breath, and then kept on pushing. There were no boundaries.
"I got to come play for one of the greatest coaches in the history of football in Bill Parcells and be a part of his first draft class [with Dallas]," Witten said. "He just taught me the game. He invested in me. He felt like he got a steal, and he was going to show the world he got a steal. Early on, he told me that if I would just trust him and listen to what he was going to teach me, that he'd make me a special player.
"The one thing I knew I had was a will. I wasn't going to quit. That stemmed from everything I'd been through in life. You weren't going to break me. I might lose and I might get beat, but I've got heart. Bill saw that heart and made me a football player."
In retrospect, the story is everything football should be about. Hard-nosed, old-school football coach takes the kid willing to bust his tail and turns him into a Hall of Fame player. However, in the moment, through the first training camp, the preseason, even the regular season, while that day-to-day, minute-to-minute stress was taking place, it wasn't all warm and fuzzy.
"I remember I was working at Parkland [Memorial Hospital], and he calls me at work," said Witten's wife, Michelle, a trauma nurse. "He was like, 'I hope you enjoyed your last day at work because I know we're done here in Dallas.'
"It's just such an emotional rollercoaster your rookie year. It's tough. When your husband calls and tells you that, you don't really know what to say. You can't say, 'Oh, honey, you're great. You're the best,' because really you don't know what it's like to be there every day during the grind. It was a tough year.
"It's so funny because Jason and Coach Parcells shared the same agent, and his agent would be like, 'Bill loves you. He speaks so highly of you.' And Jason's like, 'That's funny because I never got that.'
"And even when they converse now at the Super Bowl, or the Hall of Fame there when (Parcells) was inducted, they just have such a great relationship. But I could see Jason, the respect level, just 'yes sir, no sir.' It was back to the old traumatic years of when Coach Parcells was his coach."
Less than a month after playing his first NFL regular-season game, in which he started and caught a pass against Atlanta, Witten fractured his jaw in a win over Arizona. The following day, he underwent surgery to have three plates inserted. He would be inactive the following week, the lone game he has missed during his 13-year NFL career. Despite being one of the youngest players in the league that season, Witten finished with 35 catches, more than any other rookie tight end.
Witten has played through every injury imaginable, most notably a lacerated spleen he suffered during the preseason in 2012. No one believed there was a chance he would be ready for the season opener, yet there he was at the Meadowlands in Week 1. His toughness, his resolve, his ability to play through pain, his fearlessness to run down the field without his helmet, that total package of grit and determination has defined his career.
"The one that I was most fearful of was the spleen injury because you can die," Michelle said. "A knee or a jaw or any of these other ailing ailments can heal. But the thought that he could take a hit on the field and be on the plane back from New York and bleed out? I was eight months pregnant, and I said, 'I really do not want you to play in this game.' That was my two cents.
"He went to a doctor that was outstanding, well known, and he cleared him, and (Jason) called me and he felt he was OK. So I had to go with it because I know my husband, and there's nothing that's going to keep him off the field, especially the way the season had ended the previous year, and the fact that he was playing the Giants."
Few positions in the NFL develop slower than tight ends. The learning curve from being drafted to cracking a starting lineup usually takes two or three seasons. Witten would prove to be the quickest of studies under the tutelage of Parcells, leading the NFC with 87 catches in 2004 and making his first Pro Bowl. Within minutes of finding out, Jason placed a call to his grandfather, Dave Rider, a longtime football coach himself and the man who helped raise him.
"First of all, when he was drafted, we talked about what he needed to do to be a pro, how it was different than college ball and how he had to take the coaching, listen to everything Coach Parcells says," Rider said. "And he wanted to call and tell me how proud he was that all the things we talked about had come to fruition. He was so tickled he could hardly get the words out. I think both of us shed a tear or two by the end of the call."
Witten was named to the Pro Bowl in each of the last three seasons Parcells was the Cowboys' head coach, 2004-06. An all-around talent who blocks like Bavaro and catches like Coates, he is the total package that the coach envisioned upon drafting him. Parcells says he has never had a better all-around tight end. Upon hearing this, Witten is speechless for several seconds.
"Wow. That's the first I've heard of those words. It puts chills up my arms just thinking about it," Jason said. "The reason why I wouldn't change the draft – of course, I would have loved to have gone higher – but it was the opportunity to come here and play for the Cowboys and an opportunity to play for him. He taught me so much early on. I think more than anything, here's a Hall of Fame coach probably before he even came to Dallas, and he's fully invested in this rookie, 20-year-old tight end from Tennessee who has played 20 games at the position. How does that happen?
"He knew that my grandfather was my high school football coach. I think he knew I had a commitment level that I wanted to be great, and I wanted to be coached, and I wanted to be coached hard. Boy, did he do that. He coached me hard. I was the whipping boy.
"Tony Romo still tells stories to these young rookies when they get yelled at in their first meetings. 'You've never heard anything that came even close to what Witten got.' He's right. Even when I hear him tell the stories, and I want to laugh, I still have to shake my head a little bit because those were some long training camp days when that happened. But, he did. (Parcells) invested in me. He believed that I could be the player I am. Still to this day he sends me a text message every training camp: 'Let this be your best year. You write the chapters to the book. Don't let anybody write it for you.'
"He's just an unbelievable mentor still to this day for me. I'll forever be grateful to him. Not just the football, but also the mental approach and the mindset as a man playing this game, and how you have to turn it on and turn it off and put priorities in your life. He taught me so much."
Through the first six games of the 2015 season, Witten had totaled 979 receptions and 10,846 yards, more than the four tight ends drafted before him in 2003 earned combined during their careers. And if he catches 60 balls for at least 700 yards this year, he'll become the first player in NFL annals to compile those numbers for 12 consecutive seasons. There's also no reason he can't finish his career with the third-most receptions in league history.
The catches and yards tell so little of Witten the football player, though, and perhaps more importantly, Witten the teammate.
The football player didn't complain a single syllable last season when he was asked to run block on the majority of snaps. How many future Hall of Famers in the latter stages of their careers are willing to sacrifice like that for the sake of the team? Also, not only did he block, he was universally rated as the top blocking tight end in the NFL. In his 12th season.
The football player talks trash, a whole bunch of trash. Even at camp, it's common to see him catch an 8-yard pass, and hear his voice before he's even standing up, telling the defender, well, lots of interesting stuff. He respects his teammates and opponents, and few have a better reputation around the league, but in that Larry Bird mold, he's a sneaky, mostly good-natured, good-ribbing, jaw-jacker.
The football player is intense and ultra-competitive, as are most top-tier athletes, but he takes it to another level entirely. An overthrown pass during minicamp can lead to Witten screaming at the quarterback for 30 seconds, no matter who it might be. There is no going half speed, any time, any place, whether playing or practicing.
The teammate has been the leader of the Cowboys for some time now, much longer than most realize. He's adored, respected and feared.
The teammate has time for everyone, from the fourth-stringer with little chance of making first cuts in training camp to the All-Pros. Among the countless rookies he has helped out over the years was Michael Sam, who wrote in Sports Illustrated, "I learned a lot in Dallas from some of the best in the NFL, such as All-Pro tight end Jason Witten, who used his years of experience blocking pass rushers to teach me some tips on how to get to the quarterback faster."
The teammate is, more times than not, the first one there to break up an argument, verbal or physical, and because it's Witten, the confrontation tends to end quite abruptly. He's the peacekeeper, always trying to work out issues between teammates.
The teammate took a young Dez Bryant under his wing, through some infuriating times during the wide receiver's rookie season when there were issues of maturity. The man and football player Dez has become today, he credits a lot of that to Witten.
"He doesn't like me talking about this, and he doesn't want the credit, but Jason has done everything for me," said Bryant. "He's been like an older brother, teaching me, looking out for me. I love him. I look up to him so much. What he's been for me, it's hard to put into words."
There has also been the example Witten sets every day. Talk the talk and walk the walk. And no one takes the defeats harder. He wears them, he owns them, he suffers them, sleepless night after sleepless night. Yes, last season was fantastic, 12-4 and the second playoff win of his career, but Jason's goal is singular. There are no moral victories.
"I love football. It is our life," Michelle said. "He brings it home as far as things that have gone on in the day and his season, and there is no one that feels that heartache more than I do with him. I'm just as sick myself, and I can't sleep after a game, so we're on the same page. But to see that pain, it's just terrible. And all he wants to do is just win.
"He has accomplished everything he could possibly want to accomplish on and off the field, except for that Super Bowl. He wants to win one for the fans, his teammates, his coaches, the Jones family. He wants that so badly."
"There are a lot more talented football players than me in the National Football League," said Witten. "That's a challenge every day, and I know I have to be my best. But in order for them to beat me, they're going to have to break my will. And that's going to be tough for any opponent to do."